Text: James B. Reece, “A Gathering of Poe Essays,” Poe Studies, December 1983, Vol. XVI, No. 2, 16:41-44


[page 41:]


A Gathering of Poe Essays

Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, editor. The University of Mississippi Studies in English (1982). New Series, Volume III Poe-Purri: Edgar Allan Poe Issue. The University of Mississippi, 1982. xii + 199 pp. $5.00.

The sixteen essays in this collection are so varied that they defy neat classification. Omitting the introduction, five are critical essays treating chiefly of Poe’s fiction, two are biographical, two suggest sources for Poe, either for theme or technique, three are appreciations of individual Poe scholars and critics, and the others deal respectively with Poe as critic, as influence, and as the subject of recent scholarly (and a few unscholarly) books. The essays range widely in merit, but collectively they testify to the current awareness of Poe as a writer of complexity, subtlety, and importance.

Richard P. Benton’s introductory essay, “Some Remarks on Poe and His Critics,” in addition to commenting on the contents of this volume, traces the development of Poe scholarship from the “pioneer phase,” during which much effort necessarily went into rehabilitating Poe’s reputation from the opprobrium brought upon it by Griswold’s malice, to the far more varied and sophisticated work currently being produced. From the scholarship of the last few decades a “new Poe” has emerged, one who is seen “not only as a masterly poet and story-teller but also as a thinker and visionary who could be witty as well as serious.” Benton comments briefly on the works of many current or recent Poe scholars and takes note of contributions to the understanding of Poe made by the Edgar Allan Poe Society, Poe Studies Association, and Poe Studies. In his conclusion Benton indicates some of the paths Poe criticism may take in the future and suggests areas in which furrher scholarly work is needed.

Richard Wilbur’s “Poe and the Art of Suggestion” takes sharp issue with those critics who are content to look for meaning only on the surface of Poe’s works, disregarding what Poe himself said about the “undercurrents of meaning” that may be present in imaginative writing. The inadequacy of a literalistic approach could hardly be more clearly shown than in Wilbur’s account here of the insights gained through his own venturings into the undercurrents of Poe’s poetry and fiction. Not only do possibilities for discoveries exist, Wilbur shows, but Poe invites the reader to explore them by suggesting that something other than the obvious may be going on in his writings. “Poe’s machinery of suggestion can be submerged and sly,” Wilbur believes, and it is often Poe’s use of “absurdity and [column 2:] self-contradiction” that at length lead the reflective reader to fuller understandings.

After years of reading “Israfel” in the conventional manner, for instance, Wilbur was struck by the fact that Israfel’s superior poetry is filled with passion, whereas Poe elsewhere wrote of passion as a degrading element in poetry. This discrepancy led finally to the perception that the “intact and harmonious” soul of Israfel enables him to deal with a full range of faculties — passion, duty, truth, and beauty — while the earthly poet, a “divided soul in a degraded environment,” lives with restraints unknown to Israfel. As Wilbur found by hearing echoes of Macbeth in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and of St. Paul in “Annabel Lee,” one work may throw revealing light on another. And large areas of fruitful speculation were opened up also by the narrator’s absurd comment in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” that the phrase Je les ménageais has no English equivalent and by Dupin’s assertion that he knows what the Minister u is like when “nobody sees him.” Wilbur demonstrates that the reader who hurries by such apparent lapses in Poe may be squandering opportunities.

Resolving inconsistencies and noting connecting links, Wilbur acknowledges, may involve “confusion and error,” but he argues persuasively that there are levels of meaning in Poe, “the most secretive and difficult of our great symbolic writers,” that will be discovered only by adventurers who follow clues that take them into the depths of Poe’s texts. As Wilbur’s commentary has done in the past, this essay invites fresh and careful rereading of the tales and poems, an invitation extended with confidence that Poe, like that other artful craftsman Henry James, demands and rewards the full engagement of the mind.

Dennis W. Eddings takes a more prescriptive approach to reading Poe in “Poe, Dupin and the Reader.” Eddings thinks that Poe, as author, is duplicitous, and that the duplicity of his tales must be penetrated before their meaning can be known. Eddings sees a close relationship between Poe as author and the Minister D ——— of “The Purloined Letter.” “D ——— represents a specific type of author — one who is deliberately deceitful, who hides much of his material under a conventional, seemingly ordinary, façade. In short, we may well be justified in seeing D ——— as a representation of the duplicitous Poe that recent criticism has unmasked.” The Dupin tales, Edding argues, are “paradigms of how to read Poe,” and Dupin’s activity in “The Purloined Letter” provides a model of “how we are to deal with the duplicitous Poe.” Only by recreating “the circumstances and processes by which the text is used to camouflage its meaning” can we “recognize its hidden statement.” To find the meaning of a Poe tale, according to Eddings, the reader must play with respect to Poe the role of Dupin with respect to D ———

The trouble with using the Dupin tales as “paradigms of how to read Poe,” however, is that the method assumes what ir intends to prove. Since Poe is duplicitous, the circular argument runs, let us play Dupin to Poe in order to prove that Poe is duplicitous. Poe is found guilty, as it [page 42:] were, even before anything about his crime is known. At best Eddings’ prescription lends a bias to what should be an objective investigation; at worst it tempts the reader to “find” in the tales what he is already convinced is there. A more profitable course may be to read Poe alertly, receptive to whatever the text may suggest about itself and about Poe’s intentions therein, and to base our conclusions on that evidence.

Through the abstract and murky style of Joan Dayan’s “The Road to Landor’s Cottage: Poe’s Landscape of Effect,” two main points about “Landor’s Cottage” seem to emerge both of which show Poe as deceiving his readers as to his intentions in the sketch. First, contrary to the reader’s assumption that he is using language to describe a picturesque scene, Poe uses words in such a way that they become “figures that obscure straightforward exposition.” Under Poe’s manipulation language becomes the “destroyer of meaning.” The sketch, in Dayan’s view, is a tour de force in which language is used to defeat the expected purpose of language. Poe also deceives the reader, Dayan believes, by obliterating “every expectation the reader coming to a Poe tale would have expected to find.” In a “typical Poe tale” the road the narrator follows would “signal an approach toward something sinister or at least unknowable.” But nothing of rhat sort happens here, where the reader’s “anticipation of horror” is displaced by a “recognition of the banal.” And instead of the expected climax, “the tale winds down to an apparent collapse of dramatic possibility.”

As a matter of fact, however, “Landor’s Cottage” does present a clear picture of the scene Poe describes. Dayan’s view that in “Landor’s Cottage” Poe uses language to obscure meaning may be due in part to misreading. She quotes from Poe’s sketch a lengthy descriptive passage in which, she says, “technical play strains language to the most extreme verisimilitude and thus realizes the potential of words not to say.” Commenting on the quoted passage, she writes: “Not knowing how a slope could be called a hill only at its northern face, why a hill has been distinguished from a slope, a slope from an eminence, these series of appellations amount to no more rhan successive approximations that defy definition.” But in Poe’s passage everything is clear enough. It is not a single “slope” which can be called a hill only at a certain spot: Poe writes, “The slopes which encompassed the vale could not fairly be called hills, unless at their northern face.” By “hills” Poe means the higher slopes, and he uses “eminences” as a synonym for “slopes,” not to distinguish between the terms.

The opinion that in “Landor’s Cottage” Poe defeats the dramatic expectations of the reader is also questionable. The subtitle, “A Pendant to the Domain of Arnheim,” suggests a landscape skerch, not a tale of mystery or suspense. Also the relaxed tone of the opening paragraphs of “Landor’s Cottage” gives little indication that the piece will develop into a tale on the order of “Ligeia” or “The Black Cat.” The deliberate variety in subject matter and treatment to be found in Poe’s fiction should suffice to indicate that the reader who carries over expectations from one Poe work to another risks being deceived. [column 2:]

David H. Hirsch finds firmer critical ground in “Poe’s ‘Metzengerstein’ as a Tale of the Subconscious.” Far from being a hoax, Hirsch believes, “Metzengerstein” is a serious tale which reflects Poe’s fundamental disagreement with Romantic optimistic beliefs about man’s essential nature. Underlying the theme of metempsychosis is a darker theme of the terror and destruction that follow when man’s subconscious impulses gain dominance. Poe’s tale, says Hirsch, “presents the unadulterate terror of man’s vulnerability to forces within himself that he can neither understand nor control.” The symbol of the horse, used by figures as diverse as Plato and Freud to represent inner forces which control, or seek to control, man, is central to Hirsch’s argument. Emerson could write approvingly of the lost traveler who “throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts the instinct of the animal to find his road.” The uncontrollable horse that carries Metzengerstein to his fiery death is of a far different breed. Hirsch’s interpretation elevates this early Gothic story to a new significance in Poe’s canon.

Although “The Fall of the House of Usher” is high on the list of Poe’s tales that have stimulated widespread critical interest, James W. Gargano’s “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: An Apocalyptic Vision” gives clear indication that there is good ore still to be mined here. Gargano’s focus is the nature of the terror to which the narrator falls victim, a much-discussed question that still lacks consensus. Gargano proposes that the narrator, though he fails to understand it as such, is terrorized by “an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the world.” What is happening in the narrator’s vision is that the world is collapsing back into the Oneness in which, as Eureka has it, it began. The narrator witnesses a “pre-enactment of the end of the world and time,” but his limited understanding shuts off from him the consoling knowledge that it is part of a predestined, divinely-ordered plan. Gargano ably supports his thesis by assembling the many indications that the house of Usher and its inhabitants are merging into unity and by citing some striking verbal parallels between the story and “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.” This latter sketch, published three months after “Usher” appeared in print, deals of course with the destruction of the earth by the approach of a comet.

Kent Ljungquist finds that Poe establishes the realm of the picturesque “at a midpoint between sublimity and beauty” in “Poe and the Picturesque: Theory and Practice.” The essay usefully explores the several strands of meaning involved in the picturesque and examines Poe’s application of the concept in “Autography” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In “Autography,” which correlates handwriting to traits of character, Poe associates the picturesque style with “force, vigor, and bold impression.” Interestingly, Ljungquist thinks “Autography” merits attention “as a serious attempt to define picturesque style rather than as a forum used merely to debunk his literary competitors.” In showing Poe’s use of the picturesque descriptive technique in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which Ljungquist considers to be “perhaps his most comprehensive exercise in this aesthetic mode,” Ljungquist focuses upon [page 43:] these details of description which validate the narrator’s observation concerning “the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people.” The curiosity provoked by the “evocation of an intricate landscape” is a significant element of the technique used to establish a high correlation between the house and its surroundings and Usher’s physical and psychic manifestations. Ljungquist’s essay clarifies, as do his previous articles, a visual concept of considerable importance in Poe’s thought and practice.

Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet’s “A Note on Poe’s ‘Berenice’: A Classical Source for the Narrator’s Fantasy” suggests that Egaeus’ extraction of Berenice’s teeth and his subsequent catatonic state may result from his attempt to reenact events that occur in the myth of Cadmus. The argument for this view, however, is purely speculative and establishes no convincing link between the story and the myth.

Ashby Bland Crowder, in “Poe’s Criticism of Women Writers,” examines the charge that as critic Poe was unequal in his treatment of men and women authors. Crowder finds that the charge of favoritism toward women cannot be refuted, but he has some success in answering Richard Cary’s accusation that in reviewing women poets Poe “suffered a breakdown” of the high critical principles he applied to writings by men. Crowder shows that Poe’s reviews of women poets sometimes contain the harsh appraisals that his standards demanded, but that his practice was to soften blame with praise, often in the same sentence. Poe was gallant toward women, Crowder concedes, and throughout his career praised women writers “more than they deserved.” On the other hand, he finds “no significant differences between Poe’s application of his critical standards to male and female authors.”

Two biographical essays add interesting touches to the picture of Poe’s relationships with his contemporaries. Dwight Thomas (“William E. Burton and His Premium Scheme: New Light on Poe Biography”) illuminates what Poe in a letter referred to as Burton’s “infamous line of conduct in regard to this whole premium scheme.” While Poe was his assistant editor on the Gentleman’s Magazine, Burton announced in its pages a literary competition with prizes totalling one thousand dollars for the best manuscripts in several categories. After a few months Burton cancelled the contest, paid no prizes, and failed to return the manuscripts. Poe thought that his employer never intended to award the prizes and that the project was nothing more than a scheme to obtain free manuscripts. In “Poe, Duane and Duffee,” W. T. Bandy accurately identifies for the first time the man from whom Poe borrowed a volume of the Southern Literary Messenger, correcting a number of errors which have appeared in accounts of matters associated with the volume. The lender was William Duane, Jr. (1808-1882), whose father, William John Duane (1780-1865), has sometimes been put into the role by Poe’s biographers. Bandy also shows that the Poe-Duane matter did not end with the Messenger incident. In 1843 Frances Harold Duffee raised suspicions of plagiarism [column 2:] against Poe in connection with “The Gold-Bug.” In contributions to Notes and Queries in 1876, Duane, under a pseudonym, revived Duffee’s suspicions but was apparently silenced when John H. Ingram challenged him to produce evidence.

Three essays pay tribute to individual scholars and critics whose contributions to the understanding of Poe have been significant. John E. Reilly, in “Sarah Helen Whitman as a Critic of Poe,” terms Mrs. Whitman “at least a candidate for the most underrated critic of Poe in the nineteenth century.” As early as her 1848 valentine poem to Poe and more fully in Edgar Poe and His Critics of 1860, she perceived Poe as a pessimistic dissenter from the Romantic faith in progress and as a figure in whom “the unrest and faithlessness of the age culminated.” The views of this gifted woman, Reilly argues, deserve more serious attention than they have received. In “Reading ‘The Raven,‘” Maureen Cobb Mabbott discusses the demand in New York literary circles for Poe as a reader of his most popular poem in the months following the publication of “The Raven” in 1845. Mrs. Mabbott thinks Poe read the poem “differently on different occasions” and notes that a listener at one of Poe’s readings described the experience as “an event in one’s life.” She also recalls the interest created in 1943 by the discovery of her husband, the late Thomas Ollive Mabbott, of the first book publication of the poem in a work on elocution. “Arthur Hobson Quinn, Son of Pennsylvania,” is a tribute by Neda M. Westlake, an admirer and former student, to Quinn’s pioneering efforts to establish American literature as a graduate-school discipline and to his lifelong dedication to literary scholarship. The brief treatment of Quinn’s work on Poe presents Albert Einstein’s response to the biographer’s request for an evaluation of Eureka: “The whole presentation shows a striking resemblance to the scientific crank-letters I receive every day.”

“The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Modern Chinese Literature,” by Sheng Ning and Donald Barlow Stauffer, is an informative treatise on the interest of twentieth-century Chinese critics and writers in Poe, which culminated in the 1920’s. The authors’ survey of Chinese translations of Poe works and of short stories and poems that bear the stamp of Poe’s influence reveals a lively interest in Poe that continued for about a decade. Poe’s influence on fiction greatly outweighed his influence on poetry, which came at second hand through the French symbolistes. Response to Poe waned in the 1930’s and virtually ceased after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Today Poe’s works are “read occasionally by specialists in American literature” but “his name is virtually unknown to the younger generation.”

The ability of Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV to come quickly to the heart of critical arguments and his specific, unequivocal appraisals of strengths and weaknesses make his “A Ten-Year Shelf of Poe Books” a valuable guide to recent Poe scholarship. The survey treats in separate sections Poe editions and books of bibliography, biography, and criticism. In his balanced evaluations Fisher gives [page 46:] merit its due recognition, but he is not hesitant in reducing to insignificance the works of shoddy scholarship or gross misunderstanding of Poe that continue to appear from time to time. In concluding his essay Fisher discusses areas of Poe’s thought and works which call for further scholarship.

The variety in this volume of the University of Mississippi Studies in English, including as it does traditional biographical and source studies, New Critical explications, and readings of Poe as self-referential ironist, might be said to span much if not all of the range of work being done on the author in this country. Such variety is, in this reviewer’s opinion, healthy. Despite the unevenness of its contents, this collection contains little that the student of Poe will not find rewarding, provocative, or interesting.

James B. Reece, Old Dominion University, Emeritus


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